With dental and optical the top two benefits on healthcare cash plans, the closure of these services during lockdown presented a challenge to the sector. But, by being forced to find other ways to support their policyholders, cash plans are set to emerge from the pandemic even stronger.
As the nation stayed at home and healthcare services closed down to focus on treating Covid-19 patients, the cash plan providers’ online services came into their own. “The pandemic moved telemedicine on five years in a matter of months,” says Paul Swanson, commercial director at Healthwise and a member of the AMII executive committee.
“Without these virtual services, employees would have struggled to access care during lockdown.” Most cash plan providers already offered a suite of virtual healthcare services including GP appointments; physiotherapy triage; and mental health counselling, but few could have predicted the surge in demand during the pandemic.
As examples, Simplyhealth reported a 225 per cent increase in registrations on its virtual health cash plan app in June, and Health Shield saw demand increase across all of its virtual healthcare services. “We saw a 64 per cent increase in call centre activity for our virtual GP service in the first eight months of the year and a 91 per cent increase in usage for our on-demand physiotherapy service,” says Health Shield head of marketing Jennie Doyle.
With so many people working from home Towergate Health and Protection head of specialist Debra Clark says these virtual services are very welcome. “They’ve really helped people think about prevention and getting a problem sorted early,” she says. “Working from home has led to an increase in musculoskeletal problems. Being able to get a physiotherapist to see how you’re working enables them to make very tailored recommendations, whether that’s to change your posture, follow some exercises or arrange treatment.”
Policyholders’ appetite for virtual services during the pandemic means that, as well as promoting existing benefits, some cash plan providers have launched new ones too. Among these is Medicash, which added a skin cancer detection app, SkinVision, to its company-paid cash plans in June. This enables employees to take photos of any suspicious moles and skin spots and have them assessed by artificial intelligence. Assessments come back within seconds, alerting employees to anything that requires further investigation.
Medicash also wins applause from brokers for its Woebot app, which it introduced in November 2019. This acts as a constant companion, offering ‘in the moment’ emotional support and helping employees identify issues and concerns that they may not have realised cause them distress.
Westfield Health also found new ways to support its policyholders during the pandemic, launching a range of new online content. “We promoted all our virtual services but we also created a return to work selection of content,” says Westfield Health director of sales Paul Shires. “This has been hugely popular.”
Although employees are able to access – and claim for – dental and optical treatment again, it’s expected that there’ll still be plenty of demand for the wide range of benefits they discovered during the pandemic. “Who wants to have to take half a day off to spend it in a GP’s waiting room, especially when they might pick up someone else’s germs?” says Clark.
“Some people were sceptical about virtual healthcare before but the pandemic has helped them see the benefits.” Being able to access medical advice quickly and conveniently also feeds into the prevention side of cash plans. Rather than stress about wasting a doctor’s time, employees can get support quickly, putting their mind at rest and, if treatment is needed, potentially reducing the amount that’s required. “These virtual services can really help employees look after their health,” says Swanson, adding that he expects to see more being launched over the next few years.
Prevention is certainly a theme influencing the next phase of product development. For example, Doyle says that Health Shield is currently exploring a new offering focused on occupational health benefits. “Employers are worried about the occupational health side of things following the pandemic,” she explains.
“We’re seeing more musculoskeletal problems and if an employee is worried about their jobs or unhappy with their employer, they might use their back ache as a reason to go off long-term sick. Employers need occupational health support to help employees and address this potential problem as quickly as possible.”
There may also be some room for manoeuvre when it comes to the cost of adding in new benefits. “Claims dropped off a cliff during lockdown,” says Swanson. “Virtual benefits saw a massive increase in demand, and there may be some catch up as employees get to go to the dentist and optician again, but claims levels could well be down this year.”
His view is supported by the providers. Shires says that Westfield Health saw claims levels reduce from April, as people were still sending in receipts for treatment they’d received before lockdown. “The levels are almost back to normal now,” he adds. “Optical bounced back quickly but dental has been slower as dentists have had to focus on emergency work.”
Doyle agrees. In addition, she believes that home working has made employees much more conscious of the health of their eyes. “We work with our actuaries to understand the balance between claims and pricing,” she adds. “Many cash plan providers are not-for-profit so any surplus funds are reinvested for our members’ benefit.”
As well as giving the cash plan providers the opportunity to add new benefits, lower levels of claims could also make it a good time to take out cover. “Rates are at a low level,” says Clark. “A low claiming year is the best time to take out a plan.”
On paper, there’s very little difference between the providers, especially if you focus on pricing and the optical and dental benefit. However, Alan Mulligan, owner of Personal Healthcare Management and a member of the AMII executive committee, says it’s important to study the fine print. “Optical and dental may be the biggest areas for claims but some of the lesser used benefits can make a huge difference to employee wellbeing,” he explains.
To illustrate this, he points to CT, MRI and PET scans. “Some providers will cover 50 per cent of the cost of any scans but others will cover the full amount,” he says. “Where this is helping an employee get to a diagnosis quickly, this can make a huge difference.”
Similarly, Clark says that some of the smaller benefits are worth checking out. As an example, she points to second opinion service Best Doctors, which is included on Medicash and Westfield Health’s plans. “Getting another diagnosis or a change in treatment can be life changing,” she adds.
As well as studying the small print, it’s also essential to consider the employer’s objectives and workforce demographics. Swanson recently moved one of his clients to another provider as it had a broader range of virtual services, which was something its workforce really liked.
Service is another deciding factor, both in terms of claims and administration but also on the marketing side. “Some providers are better at supporting an employer’s health and wellbeing communications,” says Clark. “This will become increasingly important as more people work remotely.”